WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that the United States economy was slowing more than it had previously thought and painted a far less rosy economic picture than the White House as it left interest rates unchanged and signaled little appetite for raising them again in the near future.
Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chairman, said the economy “is in a good place” in a news conference. But he and his colleagues said growth appeared to be slowing from last year, under the weight of the Trump administration’s trade war, economic slowdowns in Europe and China and fading stimulus from the Republican tax cuts of 2017.
The Fed now expects 2.1 percent growth this year, down from the 2.3 percent it forecast in December — and more than a percentage point less than the 3.2 percent growth the White House predicts. The outlook for 2020 is even more bleak, with the Fed now projecting growth of just 1.9 percent.
The downbeat assessment comes as the Fed sees signs of weakness in areas like consumer spending and business investment, which Mr. Powell said “suggest that growth is slowing somewhat more than expected.” Average monthly job growth, while strong, “appears to have stepped down from last year’s strong pace,” he added.
Mr. Powell tried to reassure markets by saying “economical fundamentals are still very strong,” but he acknowledged that recent developments both domestically and abroad were making it harder for the American economy to grow as quickly as it did last year.
“We see a situation where the European economy has slowed substantially,” he said, adding that China’s economy has also weakened.
Forecasts released at the end of the two-day meeting show the typical member of the Federal Open Market Committee now expects not to raise rates at all this year, an abrupt halt to what had been five consecutive quarters of rate increases to the current range of 2.25 to 2.5 percent. Most officials now expect a single rate increase in 2020 and none in 2021. In December, when forecasts were last released, Fed officials said they expected two rate increases this year and another in 2020.
Mr. Powell showed little concern about inflation — which has stayed below the Fed’s 2 percent target — rising to levels that would trigger an immediate rate increase in order to prevent a rapid escalation of prices across the economy.
Instead, Mr. Powell did not rule out the possibility — based on the current condition of the economy — that the central bank’s next move could be a rate cut. “The data are not currently sending a signal that we need to move in one direction or another,” he said.
By signaling it will not raise rates without a clear change in conditions, the Fed is effectively giving Mr. Trump what he wants from monetary policy, but with a twist. The president has publicly pushed Mr. Powell to stop raising rates. But if the Fed is correct and growth falls well below 3 percent this year, without a single rate increase, it will be difficult for Mr. Trump to pin the blame on Mr. Powell.
The 1.9 percent growth the Fed now expects in 2020 is down from a 2 percent forecast in December. But the projections include even worse possibilities: At least one committee member forecasts growth of only 1.6 percent for 2019. In December, the lowest forecast was 2 percent for the year.
White House officials see growth staying above 3 percent for the next few years, provided Mr. Trump can continue implementing his economic agenda, including another round of tax cuts, a $1 trillion infrastructure plan and additional deregulation.
Most private forecasters’ growth predictions for this year run closer to the Fed’s than the White House’s. That includes the chief executives of the Business Roundtable, who said in a quarterly survey released Wednesday that their expectations for sales, hiring and investment fell at the start of the year. They predict the economy will grow 2.5 percent in 2019.
The gap between White House and Fed forecasts has never been wider in the years since the Great Recession ended in 2009. The two outlooks have clashed in the past — during the terms of Presidents George Bush and George W. Bush — for fundamental reasons, said Diane Swonk, the chief economist at Grant Thornton.
“One is a forecast that is meant to be as accurate as possible and produce the best monetary policy outcomes,” Ms. Swonk said. “The other is a forecast that can’t escape political and ideological desires.”
The diverging forecasts underscore the differences in how the administration and the Fed judge both the risks to economic growth this year and the evidence that Mr. Trump’s tax cuts have fundamentally strengthened the economy.
Administration officials insist that the $1.5 trillion tax cut will continue to accelerate business investment and draw more and more workers into the labor force, accelerating growth. Mr. Trump promoted his economic plan in Lima, Ohio, on Wednesday, saying it would produce record job and wage growth.
“We just came out, another chart, we just came out with numbers, the economic report of the president, 3.1 percent G.D.P., the first time in 14 years,” Mr. Trump said, referring to data showing economic output rose 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018 from a year earlier. While the Fed expressed concern that Mr. Trump’s trade policies could drag down growth, the president said his tariffs on imported metals and Chinese goods were bringing jobs back to America.
“Everyone said you couldn’t do it, you couldn’t bring back manufacturing jobs,” he said. “You would need a magic wand. We are bringing them back beyond anybody’s expectations.”
What each F.O.M.C. participant thinks the
target rate should be by the end of each year
What each F.O.M.C. participant thinks the target rate should be by the end of each year
Projections made on:
Current target rate
Mr. Powell said on Wednesday that it was difficult to discern the law’s permanent effects on the supply of workers and productivity.
“We hope they’re very large,” he said.
Asked about the Fed’s deviation from the White House’s economic growth projections that were released on Tuesday, Mr. Powell said he had not seen those numbers.
“The Fed underscored patience and a strong desire to allow inflation to run above target,” researchers at Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a research note. “As Powell said in his opening remarks, the Fed’s overarching goal is to sustain the economic expansion. This unprecedented dovish turn clearly shows such commitment.”
Yields on the 10-year Treasury note — a bellwether for a range of consumer borrowing rates — dropped sharply after the Fed statement was released as investors digested the potential that the Fed could be done raising rates for some time. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 2.52 percent — its lowest level since January 2018. Stocks, which had been negative for most of the day, rallied and briefly regained positive territory after the announcement. However, they lost steam in the last hour of trading, and the S&P 500 closed down 0.3 percent.
Analysts had been expecting the Fed to shift its forecasts at the meeting, but not by this much.
Eleven committee members said they do not expect any rate increases this year. Four said they expected one. None expected a rate cut. In 2020, a majority of members expected at least one rate increase, although some expected none.
Fed officials also announced that they would end an effort to slim the central bank’s massive holdings of government-backed securities in September, after slowing it down in May. The Fed accumulated $4.5 trillion worth of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities in an effort to stimulate the economy after the Great Recession. It has been slowly winnowing those holdings as the economy has recovered.
Many analysts had expected officials to announce the September end of the balance sheet wind-down, which Mr. Powell had foreshadowed in a recent speech at Stanford University. By October, the Fed said on Wednesday, officials will be shifting the composition of the balance sheet, moving out of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities and into primarily Treasury bonds.
Officials appeared to hasten to end the balance sheet reduction under pressure from financial markets. Many analysts blamed stock market volatility in December and January on the Fed’s wind-down process.
In announcing the end of the reduction, Fed officials acknowledged that they were stopping short of what many analysts had expected when the reduction began. They said the total holdings on the balance sheet once the wind-down ends “will likely still be somewhat above the level of reserves necessary to efficiently and effectively implement monetary policy.”
Carrying a larger-than-expected balance sheet — and operating with interest rates at what remain historically low levels — could hinder the Fed in battling an economic downturn in the near future.
Author: JIM TANKERSLEY